Charles L. Chavis
The radical Christian theology of Rev. Jeremiah Wright is the same theology that shaped President Obama’s identity as a social justice organizer and this is the same identity that we are witnessing resurface in the last days of his presidency. This reawakening became clearly evident in February of 2014 when President Obama launched My Brothers Keeper, pledging 200 million dollars to support young, Black men. However, since he delivered the eulogy for Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney in June he has been on a social justice crusade.
On June 13, shortly after announcing that he would become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison, the president set another record granting clemency to 46 federal prisoners who were convicted of nonviolent drug offenses. “These men and women were not violent criminals, but the overwhelming majority had been sentenced to at least 20 years; 14 of them had been sentenced to life for nonviolent drug offenses, so their punishments didn’t fit the crime,” President Obama said at a news conference.
Professor Michael Eric Dyson once said that in straddling the racial divide, President Obama had to, “wink at black America while speaking to white America.” However, the eulogy he delivered in Charleston a few weeks ago was more than just a wink. In fact it was a full embrace of the prophetic black preaching tradition. But why did nine innocent worshipers have to be slaughtered in order for him to finally speak to black America.
His eulogy was reminiscent of the radical Christian messages of Jeremiah Wright, Jr., his former pastor, and the man who he distanced himself from in 2008 so that he could be electable. Rev. Wright, liberation theologian and social justice activist is known for his fiery sermons where he often wrestles with racism and systematic injustice in America. These sermons often critique the United States government and the practices of its leaders. “The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing ‘God Bless America.’ No, no, no, God damn America, that’s in the Bible for killing innocent people,” Wright said in his infamous 2003 sermon. The direct action of president Obama on Monday is aligned with some of the issues pointed out in Rev. Wright’s 2003 sermon and are a remedy addressing what Michelle Alexander names as the New Jim Crow, the prison industrial complex.
Such critical rhetoric caused obvious problems for the then presidential candidate. Rev. Wright described the root of such a dilemma in 2008 stating “Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls…Preachers say what they say because they are Pastors. They have a different person to whom they are accountable.”
On Friday, June 26th 2015, after seven years of serving as United States President Obama finally acknowledged the role that our nation’s past injustices play in modern day acts of hatred and discrimination “It was an act that drew on a long history of bombs and arson and shots fired at churches, not random, but as a means of control, a way to terrorize and oppress,” President Obama told the congregation. He continued, “An act that he imagined would incite fear and recrimination, violence and suspicion. An act that he presumed would trace back to our nation’s original sin.”
The central theme of President Obama’s eulogy was grace, he even sang Amazing grace. However it is tragic that politics can get in the way of proclaiming truth. It took the massacre of nine black people in a Charleston church, and perhaps the freedom of his lame duck status, for Obama to grace black America with his true voice. Welcome back, Mr. President.
Charles L. Chavis, Jr., has written for Religious Education, Blackpast.org, and the International Bulletin of Missionary Research. He is a Doctoral Student in History at Morgan State University